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’56 Chevy An Old School Build Caught Between Two Icons

ALAN PARADISE June 29, 2022 All Feature Vehicles

The firstborn gets all of the attention. The last born gets all of the pampering as well as the benefits from the lessons parents learned raising their older children. It’s the middle child who must find his or her own way.

As it is in a family, so it went in the ’50s within the Chevrolet Division of General Motors. When the ’55 models were introduced, there was a great rumble that rippled throughout the entire auto industry. The modern Motoramic styling matched with a new Turbo-Fire V-8 engine had thirsty consumers running into showrooms. Likewise, the stunning ’57 was styled at the apex of the tailfin era and fitted with the new 283-cid engine that could be optioned with fuel injection.

The original dashboard, steering column and interior window frames were sanded down to bare metal. Each was primed and painted in the factory Nassau Blue and India Ivory colors. Old school builds are slowly becoming the next step in the evolution of enthusiast builds, and some key details in these are the under-mount Moon gauges and chrome-plated heater vents.

As the decades rolled past, both the ’55 and ’57 Chevy models became iconic cars. Some were centerpieces of movies and television shows. The ’56, on the other hand, became the forgotten middle child. In retrospect, many historians now view the styling of the ’56 as the most pleasing of the three. With its elongated egg crate grille, gentle rear wheel well slope and unique body trim, all giving the profile the illusion of motion, it was the ideal combination of fashion and function.

In the ’60s and ’70s, thousands of 1955-57 Chevys were modified and customized. These cars were a staple of every North American cruising and street race scene. No place was the action more intense than Southern California. It was here where budding drag racer Dominic Cardoza was an active participant. While his dragster days progressed from gas to Top Fuel, he built a smoothly running ’56 210 as a daily driver. Racer by weekend and mechanic for a Dodge dealer in La Mesa, California during the week, his Nassau Blue and India Ivory coupe was a common sight in and around club and competition events.

Coker Tires Pro-Trac 275/60-15 fatties perfectly fill the slopping wheel well lines. Wheels are 15×8 ET Five Windows. The drop-style rearend runs a 4:11 Posi unit,  just as it did in the ’60s.
Harley Earl, head of styling for GM, was obsessed with futuristic air travel. The jet hood ornament was a big part of the modern image of the Chevrolet line. The ’56 was the final year with this type of ornate trim.

As priorities and tastes shifted, Cardoza let go of his ’56. Some long-timers say it was because he progressed into a more serious SoCal Top Fuel driver. Whatever his reasons, the sweet little two-door, sporting a hot small-block, four-speed and Corvette Rally Wheels disappeared into the California woodwork.

Fast forward to 2007, 37 years later. During an estate sale, a shadowy figure was spotted in the garage. Cloaked by old canvas tarps and inches of dust was a familiar shape. When the degrading canvas and a layer of plastic sheeting were lifted, what looked like a white and turquoise ’56 Chevy was revealed. The old Goodyear Polyglas tires had long since rotted away, and the muted polish of the Rally wheels rested on what was left of the rubber.

To the lucky one that made the discovery, this looked like one of many street machines built in the heyday of the cruising era. A deal was made and the old ’56 transferred from one garage to another. Again, its fate was to remain idle, lying in wait to be reborn. There it sat for another few years before it was once again passed along.

“After doing some checking around, I was stunned to discover that this car was originally built by local racing legend Dominic Cardoza.”

This is the way it’s supposed to be: column-mounted Moon tach staring you straight in the eyes.
Under the hood was livened up with a Jeg’s 350, .30-over, four-bolt main engine topped with an all Edelbrock dual-quad intake. Headers are Hedman. Note the chrome-plated core support and silver-coated radiator tank.

Five years ago, the redheaded stepchild of the Chevrolet line finally saw the light of day. Cory Tobin came onto the SoCal car scene in the early ’70s. His affinity for the old-school style was built in. By this time, the ’56 was resting in the garage of an old car club friend. The car had been cleaned up a bit and the quality lacquer paint buffed out. Surprisingly it still has plenty of shine and depth. However, it was not a priority project. Cory conveyed his interest in the aging coupe. A year later, his friend took him up on the offer. Once gain, it was down the road to the next garage. This time, however, plans were put into motion.

Cory’s first step was to remove the old Bowtie small-block. He ordered up a Jeg’s .30-over four-bolt main 350 long-block with 10.1 compression pistons. He mated this with a 30/30 Duntov solid lifters cam knowing it would give the car that nasty old school sound. The topping on the cake was the Edelbrock intake with dual 500-cfm carburetors. Keeping with the vintage theme, early ’60s Corvette valve covers were polished and installed. While still on the stand, an MSD ignition was added and Headmen headers were bolted on. When the engine fired up, the noise was pure heaven.

Thankfully, Cory felt it was important to keep all of the original gingerbread on the car. This accented the way it appeared at San Diego cruise spots like Oscar’s Drive-In or one of the A&W Root Beer stands during the ’60s and ’70s.

Prior to the engine being dropped in, the existing Muncie M22 four-speed was freshened up and a new clutch and pressure plate were installed. The inner fender wells were reworked and smoothed. The firewall was also smoothed before the entire space was shot in two-stage high-gloss black. It was at this point where Cory learned his little project had history. “One Saturday morning, garage door up and working on the car, a guy stopped to check it out. He said his uncle Dominic had a car just like this decades ago. I didn’t think much of it until he told me his uncle was big into drag racing back in the day. I thought ‘Could it be?’ After doing some checking around, I was stunned to discover that this car was originally built by local racing legend Dominic Cardoza.”

With this new information in hand, Cory was even more determined to renew the ’56 as it could have been in the ’60s and ’70s. This meant no power windows, air conditioning, billet wheels or mega-watt sound system. Keep it real.

Keeping to the street machine tradition meant reproducing the right exhaust note. No one in Southern California is better at this than Ed Hanson in Spring Valley. He’s been building pipe dreams since the ’60s. Once he saw Cory’s revived ’56, he started spinning stories of the duals he installed for Dominic way back when. Needless to say, Ed was thrilled to put together a modern-day version of a classic exhaust sound.

Trends come and trends go. During it all it seems that the big buck builds get the most ink. However, there is something to be said for the heart and soul of a classic, old school revival.

The elongated egg-create grille was the most attractive of all of the Tri-Five Chevys. Danchuk was the source for the original look.

The dropout-style rearend still had the Posi unit and 4:11 gears. Cory added Danchuk traction bars and KYB gas-filled shocks. Lowering blocks provided a few inches of reduced stance. The front suspension was also treated to KYBs and the coil springs were heat formed to bring down the nose.

Tires and wheels are always a tricky subject, especially resisting the urge to jump up into plus one or more sizes. Discipline was the word of the day. Cory went vintage drag race style with 15×5 ET Drag Master fronts on 185/60-15 Coker Pro-Trac tires. For the rear, 275/60-15 Coker Pro-Trac tires house 15×5 ET Five Window wheels.

The interior was one area of the rig that was a total loss. So, Cory turned once again to the Danchuk catalog to acquire new old-stock handles, cranks, knobs and buttons. A replacement front bench and rear sofa were brought in as well as carpet and headliner kits. Armondo’s Auto Upholstery of Santee, California stitched up the tasteful gray leather seats and door panels. The dash and window frames were repainted to match the exterior factory colors.

The factory-style front split bench seat, rear passion pit and door panels were covered in gray leather by Armando’s in nearby Santee, CA. Interior trim was found via Danchuk.

Speaking of the exterior paint. What you see is the same lacquer paint applied decades earlier. It’s been buffed and polished, but it’s the same paint. It goes to prove that quality lasts.

Trends come and trends go. During it all it seems that the big buck builds get the most ink. However, there is something to be said for the heart and soul of a classic, old school revival. For millions, this ’56 Chevy is a throwback to a time of affordable first cars. When street machines cruised Main Street and populated the local drive-in. A time when creature comforts were second place to thrill seeking. Cory’s middle child Chevy is a time machine from an era that laid the foundations for every trend that followed. It has defiantly found its own way back into fashion.


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